Good Teaching - Art or Science?

I had my first day back in class today. We started with a lesson on graphing quadratic equations. Tricia Colclaser, the teacher, gave a mini-introduction and walked around the room while we practiced.

As she checked in with everyone, Colclaser got some props from a student, who was getting it. He said: "I like math when I have a good teacher."

Of course, teacher quality is the laser focus of education reform lately. Pretty much any study shows it's the most important factor for student learning. But few experts can tell you what it means or how to evaluate it.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point" and "Outlier" and a former Washington Post reporter, had an interesting piece in The New Yorker recently about this very issue. He likened teacher recruiting to recruiting quarterbacks in the NFL. You never know how they will do until they get onto the field, under pressure, with split-second decisions to make and everything at stake.

He dropped in on a group of education researchers at U-Va. who have determined that teacher feedback, or the ability to respond meaningfully to each student, is linked most strongly to academic success. This kind of talent, as well as the ability to have eyes in the back of your head, or defuse problems before they erupt...all have nothing to do with the academic credentials of the teacher or the scores on their Praxis test, or the things that the federal government and states are focusing on.

Gladwell concludes:

...[W]e shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

Since we are all guessing here, I will say I think Gladwell's assessment goes a little too far in the opposite direction. I think the intellect and content knowledge of a teacher matter a lot. This other stuff does too, clearly, and it's hard to know who will have the ability to connect with students and who won't and to what extent teachers can learn that. But to be a great teacher, it helps to have a sophisticated understanding of the thing you want to teach. To write beautiful prose is one thing, but if you have nothing interesting to say, your story is probably not worth reading.

If you had to pick the top one or two variables that define good teaching, what would they be?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  January 6, 2009; 10:07 AM ET  | Category:  Class Time , Math Education Reform
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Comments



Michael, you're too facile with Gladwell's comments. He didn't say that content-less people should be teaching -- in fact, he said that they should have a college degree. Theoretically, such people have graduated high school and college and are well equipped to teach high school in terms of content.

In fact, his point about credentials is well made -- and you missed the boat on that. The credentials have NOTHING to do with teacher success. Thus, whatever "content" such credentials add to the teachers (as you seem to think that they do), that content does not affect the actual quality of teaching. This means that your last statement about beautiful prose is just oversimplifying Gladwell's statements. Again, Gladwell didn't argue that a teacher needed no content. Instead, he argued that teachers with a college degree had enough content and that MORE content had no effect on teaching.

You see, knowledge of the subject matter is probably one of those things where, once you meet a certain level of knowledge of the subject, additional knowledge has no effect on your ability to teach it. This certainly makes sense for high school. It's hard to see why teaching world history in high school requires you to have gotten a Ph.D in history.

Of course, you may be under the mistaken impression of what precisely a Ph.D. means. It does not mean just continuing to take a bunch of classes after college that cover the breadth of an area like history. Rather, a Ph.D. actually means specializing in one very specific topic and researching and writing a dissertation on that topic. In other words, it makes you an expert in one VERY specific area -- not an expert in general, broad-based history (for example).

Really, though, you shouldn't straw-man Gladwell's arguments.

Posted by: rlalumiere | January 6, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

love of the subject matter;
love of teaching (in that order).
everything else sort of fades
into insignificance by comparison.

these qualities can only be accurately
assessed by *other teachers* (who happen
to love the subject and the job);
managers will persist in thinking
they can measure us like any other product;
they will continue to be dead wrong.

all of this used to be considered
pretty doggone obvious; they called it
"the academy". it was a nice place to live.

Posted by: vlorbik | January 6, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

rlalumiere, I disagree. I got good grades in high school, and an engineering degree in college. I just had my 10 year HS reunion, so I'm not even that far removed. Although I expect I have the content knowledge to teach science and math classes, I don't think I would be a very good teacher of history, literature, art.... I could probably read from a textbook, and follow state standards, but I wouldn't necessarily be able to help students identify connections in the material, answer questions that go outside the content I'm provided, or sprinkle in the details that make those subjects interesting. And certainly music courses, foreign languages, wood/machine/auto shop, drafting (maybe most electives) require more specialization than high school and general college courses.

In my experience, I'd say the best teachers followed vlorbik's model. But most of the classes I was in thoroughout school were gifted, honors, or AP, and the reality of those classes are, they represent a narrow subset of the students, and what works there may not be enough elsewhere.

Posted by: tomsing | January 6, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

The egotistical conceit that good teachers cannot be graded according to a series of metrics is over, Vlorbik. That's nothing but ego-stroking by the teachers and is so far from true, let alone obvious, that your post is a parody of itself.

Neither love of the subject nor love of teaching translates into being a good teacher, obviously. I recount that in the third grade I had a teacher who everyone loved and who everyone had thought was a good teacher who suffered a health issue in her family and stopped teaching us. In the 4th grade I and my friends moved from the top of the class to remedial math, reading, penmanship, etc. My parents were shocked that students from the other third grade class knew so much more than us. Why? Because this teacher, for all her love of the subject and 20 years at the school, STOPPED TEACHING but didn't stop showing up in the classroom. According to my mother 40% of the students in K-3 left after that year, including us, and the school was closed 4 years later due to lack of enrollment.

In the next 5 years we will have an accurate, computer-driven model for assessing teacher effectiveness in the same way we have similar models for assessing innovation in business and other "soft" skills. The ego-driven world of the Vlorbiks will be a laughable story from the past.

Posted by: bbcrock | January 6, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Ms. Chandler rather mischaracterizes Gladwell's argument when she sums it up as excusing lack of "intellect and content knowledge," but she does a good job of summarizing his article until that point. What she may assume is what many assume -- that lots of Americans have bachelor's degrees. They don't. Only 20% of working adults have a bachelor's degree (I checked that statistic with The Chronicle of Higher Education *and* the Census Bureau), so having "a pulse and a college degree" may be rarer than she -- or most of us -- think.

Posted by: rockyXVI | January 6, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

1. Classroom Control (without it nothing else matters)

2. Ability to explain the concepts in a wide variety of ways using different interesting formats. (This example is most important in Math but applies to other subjects as well. There are too many math teachers who know the material but can only explain it in one way or heaven forbid can't even explain it at all)

You measure point 1 (discipline incidents) and point 2 (a combination of % of students at grade level and % of improvement) averaged for the school and across grade levels for the region

Here is a roughsketch for evaluation.

Top 10% in a category +3
75-90 +2
60-75 +1
40-60 0
25-40 -1
10-25 -2
0-10 -3

Teachers with at least a +4 get a pay bonus
Teachers with a -1 or less reduced pay step
Teachers with a -3 or less probation removal next year if scores do not improve drmatically

Posted by: novamiddleman | January 6, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate you taking me to account for being overly simplistic. But I just re-read the story, and I would still make the same point. I'm not defending the certification process, and I agree that it may not be a useful predicter. But there should be some standards for proving you know what you are teaching -- beyond college and a pulse. Gladwell offers a comparison of hiring teachers and hiring analysts in the financial sector. He said, firms may interview and audition up to 1000 people to find ten good ones.

From the story: “Between hard and soft costs,” he says, “most firms sink between a hundred thousand dollars and two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on someone in their first three or four years,” and in most cases, of course, that investment comes to naught.

--Interesting to know, but hard to draw practical lessons for a publicly funded school system -- need to find more useful predicters of success than that.

Posted by: Michael Alison Chandler | January 6, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, just can't put real metrics to teaching. A good teacher just has an intangible knack for conveying the subject to the student.

Some are better at older students, some are more in tune with younger students, but it is like drafting sports athletes, you don't know until they see the classroom.

As there is no formula for determining what a good teacher is, there is no real method to how to manufacture one.

Like tomsing, above, I had good grades, and I'm an engineer with 10+ years of experience, and I have no business trying to teach.

Posted by: kolbkl | January 6, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

tomsing, I should have made myself clearer. I was assuming that the college degree was in a related subject. Thus, you, with your degree engineering, may not be terribly qualified to teach art in high school. In other words, my suggestion is that the content level achieved by a college major in that area may be sufficient.

As an interesting anecdote, I attended a private high school in the D.C. area. Because it was private, its requirements for being a teacher were lower -- as in, they did not have to have those credentials -- just a college degree. Nonetheless, the school has an excellent reputation and I had a tremendous number of great teachers.

Really, I think that what makes a great teacher is a good understanding of the subject matter (but no, you don't have to be a particle physicist to teach physics) combined with certain qualities that are, in fact, unteachable. We can teach people how to do the mechanics of teaching, but I think being able to teach requires more intuitive abilities that we simply cannot teach people to have. Thus, the final irony: We can teach people many things except how to teach.

Posted by: rlalumiere | January 6, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Knowledge of content is not as important as knowing how to teach. Textbooks have all of the content but it doesn't necessarily mean a student will learn it by reading the textbook cover to cover.

Posted by: mediajunky | January 6, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Okay, now that I understand that, I agree (but I don't know if it was Gladwell's position - link isn't working for me). A deeper knowledge of a field than an undergrad degree wouldn't hurt, but I suppose it would have diminishing returns.

Posted by: tomsing | January 6, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

The belief that anyone with a pulse and a degree should be given the opportunity to teach in our public schools is probably the single-most important reason for low teacher performance in the United States. All countries with enviable educational systems have rigorous standards for teachers at all levels.

In the United States we also have some of the best schools in the world - at the university level. Why not do for K-12 what we have successfully done for higher education: Insist on very high standards for teacher candidates (no waivers), have a rigorous probationary period and then give these people professional salaries, autonomy and respect. We know how to get good teachers; we just don't want to pay for it.

Posted by: ljohnson562charternet | January 7, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I have been teaching for 16 years after leaving corporate America. I have seen many great, caring teachers lose their jobs because they could not meet the NCLB requirements. These were teachers for 10 to 25 years but still in their 40's and 50's (Hard to do something else at that age). Many new teachers not all, are coming into education saying they can "pass tests and need a job". When classroom management comes into play, they come to "older" teachers for help. They can read the material, but cannot present it in a way the children understand, thus setting children up for failure and a label of "at risk". Many are ill equipped to deal with the new urban/suburban children and their parents of today. I feel if a teacher has a college degree and a masters, why must they be NCLB and CLAD certified to do a job they have already proven themselves in? You wonder why more state of the art jails are being built and no upgrades on schools or new schools are being built. What is the REAL priority? Teachers help mold the minds of the future. Yet, we have to be the most educated with summer CEU's (not vacation-that we pay for - tax deduction for the year is only $250) and are the least paid. Just sharing.

Posted by: PJW9000 | January 7, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

WHAT MAKES A GOOD MATH TEACHER?


THERE ARE TWO ANSWERS.

ONE: (AS FOR ALL TEACHERS)THE ABILITY TO INSPIRE; TO NURTURE AND BE PATIENT WITH THOSE WHO ARE STRUGGLING AND OF COURSE, TO BE PREPARED. THAT LEADS TO THE NEXT ANSWER.

TWO: PRESENTLY, GOOD MATH TEACHERS SIMPLY DO NOT EXIST. WHAT IS BEING TAUGHT NOW IN OUR SCHOOLS WILL NOT PREPARE STUDENTS FOR THE WORKPLACE AWAITING THEM. CORRECT ME IF I AM WRONG BUT QUANTUM MATHEMATICS IS NOT BEING TAUGHT AT THE HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL AND YOU WON'T SEE THE WORD "QUANTUM" ON THE MATHEMATICS SYLLABUS AT VASSAR COLLEGE. CALTECH? DOES A BEAR LIKE HONEY?

WE HAVE A MAJOR PROBLEM IN AMERICA. THE SCIENCE OF MATHEMATICS HAS MADE HUMONGOUS LEAPS IN THE PAST 20 YEARS, YET MATHEMATICS CURRENTLY APPLIED TO ECONOMIC AND BUSINESS PROBLEM SOLVING IS OBSOLETE.

OUR ECONOMY IS CRUMBLING? SURPRISE? HARDLY.
APPLICATION OF CONTEMPORARY MATH TO ECONOMIC PATTERNS WOULD HAVE PREDICTED THE MESS 10 YEARS AGO!

RIGHT NOW, WE HAVE A PLETHORA OF BRILLIANT MATHEMATICAL MINDS WORKING FEVERISHLY ON QUANTUM APPLICATIONS THAT HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO ELEVATE SOCIETY'S COLLECTIVE INTELLECT - PROVIDING A LEVEL OF TECHNOLOGY MOST WOULD LAUGH AT AS PURE SCIENCE FICTION. A TYPICAL 9TH GRADER TODAY WILL BE LOST IN THE PREVAILING MATHEMATICAL ENVIRONMENT OF 2015.

BOTTOM LINE...WHAT'S WRONG WITH MATHEMATICS TEACHING TODAY? 2+2 DOES NOT EQUAL 4.

ML SMITH at http://inhumanityandinhumanity.blogspot.com


Posted by: smthmort | January 7, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

In Response to rialumiere - entry 1/6 at 3:25...Quote: "...you don't have to be a particle physicist to teach physics."

Yes, you are correct - you don't. That is the problem, and we had better solve it now or we will become a technological Third World Nation faster than Elliot Spitzer can tuck in his shirt.

I fully agree that all the knowledge in the world goes to waste if a teacher can't inspire. Unfortunately, we have far too few college instructors who can teach "How to Inspire." While this ability is sometimes instinctive or part of one's personality,(i.e. charisma) typically it must be learned. How sad. Try to find a college catalogue that lists such a course. "HOW TO INSPIRE 101" is rarely offered.

We are educating a generation of scientifically challenged robots. Some will become teachers. The population of SCR's (Scientifically Challenged Robots) will grow exponentially...like cockroaches. Do you want them teaching your children?

Posted by: smthmort | January 7, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Did you know that the most important thing about being a good teacher according to students is how well the teacher knows his curriculum and how well he conveys the information to an individual student? Think back, what were the qualities of the teachers that you thought were great, do you remember what they taught? Instead of merit pay for good student progress, students should rate teachers and explain why they think the way they do. Over time these ideas could become grouped, categorized, quantified, and you could put labels on ideas such as: is the teacher clear, did you practice with the idea and did the teacher correct you, did you share your ideas with others, was the practice work enough for you? In my mind teachers know a lot, they have to think fast and under pressure, especially since NCLB has put much extra pressure on districts and teachers, and be able to organize everything multiplied by 120 or however many students a teacher sees. Not only are demands of teaching huge, but all of this must be handled by a professional who can remain cheerful and pleasant. I saw a license plate message that read, "It is not road rage, I teach middle school" and that message made complete sense to me. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS IN EDUCATION A DEFINITION FOR A GREAT TEACHER IS AS ELUSIVE AS WHAT MAKES A GREAT PRESIDENT. Most of the time great presidents are made by their interactions, when they face circumstances of the day and commit to resolving problems for the benefit of the greater good. As far as teaching goes great teachers are made by their interactions as they face complicated human and teaching issues, and solve problems for the benefit of that particular child and well being of the school, staff, district, and country. This is such an enormous responsibility. If you want to improve public schools allow floating teachers that teach music, PE, dance, science, handwriting, cheerleading, karate, art, and please get public schools that have small libraries to become local public libraries for parents and families as well as their children. Do this especially in your poverty schools. Local families would have access to computers, books, and if needs are known, districts can work on answers to needs. This will require more money than building prisons, but I know with the extra singing and dancing, students' academics will improve too. Rhythm is related to reading well and counting believe it or not. If you want good writers teach them art.

Posted by: whitesharkt | January 7, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

I think it's a little silly to be discussing the matter in overly general terms. Different skills are required for different grades and subjects. And while educational background may not be a good predictor of teacher performance, asking candidates to perform a long series demonstration classes can reliably predict performance. Mr. Gladwell and many people in this forum have made reasonable and intelligent suggestions that in the end come down to tinkering. The state of education is similar to the state of medicine 200 years ago. Perhaps it's not impossible that our basic assumptions concerning education are wrong?

Posted by: scygulp | January 8, 2009 1:15 AM | Report abuse

As a middle school teacher, I think the attributes of great teachers are multifacited. Most importantly, you have to be willing to learn constantly as well as be flexible and open minded.

There is nothing about the art or profession of teaching that is static. Content knowledge changes, especially in science. I teach concepts that didn't even exist when I was in grade school.

There are always new tools and ways you can experiment with to facilitate learning. You find what works and then you find that you need to change or add new strategies to accomodate different learning styles as populations change from year to year. You have to want to change and be flexible.

Great teachers need to be able to communicate and exchange ideas freely with other teachers. It is rare that a single teacher will figure out the best learning strategy without the perspectives of others.

Great teachers need patience and lots of it, along with personal time to decompress and regain composure. Students will test you in every way imaginable. They will push you to your limits to see what will make you crack. They will find out what your rules really mean.

Thus, the fewer rules you have the better. Keep them simple and enforceable. Never get in an argument, especially during class as you will quickly lose control. Fire back with empathy and respond with questions to keep them thinking. I always stop a potential argument by saying that I only argue after 4pm, you are welcome to come and seem me then.

The most memorable statment my cooperating teacher made while I was student teaching was, "It's time to put on the teflon teaching suit. You should never take any of the mean and crazy things students say and do personally as most don't even realize what they are saying and doing anyway."

Always keep the students busy and never give them the answer, but always provide the resources to find the answer easy to spot in the classroom. That way you can always point them to the right place without it being to complicated for you.

Teachers should have lots of pertinent resources visible throughout the classroom. The answers should be everywhere in textbooks, on posters, diagrams, models, and subject specific books for greater inquiry.

Finally, care about the lives of each and every student. Find at least one thing you can identify with and ask them to talk about their lives when not giving instructions. I find that standing at the door betwen passing periods is the best time to connect with students as it is their prime social time.

Take the time and be visable when students peform outside of regular core academics. I like to score sporting events because they notice I am focusing on them. Attend musical and theatrical performances. Any event that highlights who they are outside of academics shows you are willing to see who they really are.

Posted by: tazmodious | January 8, 2009 2:57 AM | Report abuse

I think what makes a great teacher is a complicated question without any one obvious answer, but one thing is almost certainly experience!

I'm in my third year of teaching, and I know that there are things that I'm doing better this year than I did my first, or even my second.

I was always trying my hardest and doing my absolute best, but a couple years experience have made my best a lot better. Now that I've taught the curriculum a few times, I know the places that my students have trouble, and I've learned tricks to help them, sometimes to help them even before they start having that particular problem. I've bought and made some really cool resources I didn't have my first year, and I'm doing a lot of things that I either didn't think of, or wasn't able to incorporate at first.

Gladwell may have a point when he says we need to assess teachers after they have started, but we also need to take into account the fact that teachers improve.

Posted by: Natalie3 | January 8, 2009 4:22 AM | Report abuse

Tazmodius, I'm contemplating a career change to teaching. Your suggestions have helped me envision the role I'd like to live. Thanks.

Posted by: andyo3 | January 8, 2009 6:46 AM | Report abuse

Hehehehehe-

Oh you non-teachers are funny. Just two things? Or, two most important things? Wish it were that simple-

1- Organization skills
2- Ability to multitask
3- Management skills
4- Motivation skills
5- Acting skills
6- Superior content knowledge
7- Patience of a saint (for dealing w/ students)
8- Patience of a saint plus (for dealing w/ administrators)
9- Good shoes (cuz your feet are going ot hurt)
and finally-
10- An excellent sense of humor

Posted by: davetheman | January 8, 2009 7:10 AM | Report abuse

A good teacher must see the student as an individual. That means going the extra mile to talk to that student, understand their background, and appreciate what makes them the person they are.

A good teacher must also believe in and have hope for every student they meet, and express their faith in the student's abilities and in their future.


Posted by: dcn8v | January 8, 2009 8:11 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Natalie3 that good teaching comes with experience. How can you expect an excellent teacher to simply start from day 1 being superb at her job? She or he learns every day on the job about what it means to be an effective teacher.
However, I wonder about the quality of teaching when someone steps outside their field of expertise - why are they teaching Calculus when their degree is in English (as I found out recently was the case for one teacher in a neighboring town...)
To save money for the school district? Because they 'burned out' teaching English and just didn't want to leave the profession?
'I think the intellect and content knowledge of a teacher matter a lot. This other stuff does too' says Michael Chandler - and I agree with her. But the 'other stuff' is hard to measure. At the very least, you should have a degree in math to teach math.

Posted by: KathyWi | January 8, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

First of all I answered the original question

If you had to pick the top one or two variables that define good teaching, what would they be?

Now that the conversation has evolved

To all the teachers. Sure we are business people and not teachers but for any profitable business you need qunatifiable benchmarks to measure against and not most of the squishy stuff that permates education and I might add many other liberal arts programs.

With that being said I have tremendous respect for teachers and the amount of sacrifice and abuse you go through with the limited pay..

Back to the subject at hand... As a starting point lets talk about what is the end goal of teaching. In business your end goal is profit. As employees are evaluated in then end it always comes back to much profit they are providing the cooperation.

Now moving to education the end goal isn't profit the end goal is knoweldge. Can we agree on this? The job of the teacher is to convey knowledge. So then the next logical question becomes how do we measure this knowledge. I would say testing. Still agree? If not what are better quantifiable ways to measure knowledge

Assuming those parameters are set. Wouldn't the next logical step be to reward those teachers who convey knowledge the most effectively and put on probation those who offer the smallest knowledge.
Thoughts???

One caveat of course you can't base it on raw score. Some formula of percentage increase in scores normalized against the average scores for that particular school area and perhaps bonuses for high reduced lunch or ESL rates. That is why no child left behind has failed because you can't have a blanket formula across all districts. It take much less effort to have success in a highincome English only area vs a low-income low usage of English as the primary language area


Posted by: novamiddleman | January 8, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I have typos but this paragraph needs a serious edit :-p

Back to the subject at hand... As a starting point lets talk about what is the end goal of teaching. In business your end goal is profit. As employees are evaluated in then end it always comes back to much profit they are providing the cooperation.

Here is the edit

Back to the subject at hand. As a starting point lets talk about what the end goal of teaching should be. In business your end goal is profit. As employees are evaluated it is entirely based on how much profit they are providng the corperation.

Posted by: novamiddleman | January 8, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

There is both art and science in effective teaching, as my dear departed father (Sam Wiggins) told me more than once. You develop standards for the performance elements that can be measured; for the art, you have to rely on squishier metrics. But some instruction in the different ways kids learn is essential for teachers; some techniques are not obvious to someone who just has content mastery.

I'm struck by the fact that commenters do not address the difference between teaching children to be productive subjects, and teaching them to be effective, questioning citizens.

Posted by: spwiggins | January 8, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Interesting point spwiggins

Its a philosopihcal discussion that has been raging for decades.

Liberal Arts education (effective questioing citizens)

vs

Technical education (productive subjects)

I am just one person in the business community but I think its fairly safe to say there is a greater need for people with real technical skills as opposed to liberal arts. Or as I like to say give me a solid IT guy over an MBA any day of the week.

Posted by: novamiddleman | January 8, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

In all the debate about teacher accountability and comparisons to profit-based business models, there is one glaring omission. As educators, we do not practice our craft on inanimate objects. Living, breathing human beings, no matter their size, have wills of their own, experiences we can never fully understand, and as many different personalities and learning styles as there are students. The fatal flaw of NCLB is the same flaw that comes with every government effort to evaluate students and teachers: basing everything on one arbitrary test score. Historically, when schools were more homogeneous and the culture supported school values instead of directly contradicting them, this might have been a decent indicator. In today's environment, it is a ridiculous and arcane idea. We need to completely rethink the way we do school in this country. Face it, we are using a model that is 200 years old.

Posted by: l_fryman | January 8, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Knowledge is a tool, not a goal. Teaching is manipulating knowledge (facts, concepts, people, events, theories) to create opportunities for students to assess, evaluate and build on the foundations of knowledge.

Good teaching is an art - at its heart is an ability to connect with an audience and share the view of the world found in your discipline. There are innumerable ways to do so, and trying to create a one size fits all metric is simply absurd.

Two things basic to a good teacher?

1. A level of mastery of subject matter that inspires confidence from your classroom (that obviously varies by grade level - 6th grade math is a bit different than calculus)

2. Confidence - born of the twin abilities to listen effectively and adapt approaches accordingly.

Problem is - people with those talents can be successful in any number of careers - so why pick one that pays poorly and is seen as less desirable?

Those of you who attended private schools, especially in major cities - do the following - envision your teachers in an urban, poor, public school environment. If you don't see them succeeding there, then they're not as good as you think they are.

Posted by: NBCT2001 | January 8, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Teachers are constantly under scrutiny and I agree that we should be, but I wish that the people who were looking were a little more educated and informed about what it really is like to be a teacher and work in the public school system.

FYI- Teachers, especially new teachers (0-4 years of experience) are constantly formally observed. At highly efficient, highly effective schools, administrators are always observing teachers. Maybe the problem isn't ineffective teachers, but rather inexperienced and misguided teachers- maybe the part of the blame should be placed on the administrators for their lack of support and guidance.

Posted by: NCTeacher | January 8, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

There are many interesting ideas brought forth here on what makes a good teacher. I have enjoyed my read through what is currently posted. Here are some thoughts I had which I think might be worth considering having been at this for 20+ years.

1. Almost everyone teaches. Best examples- if you have kids or are a manager you spend lots of time teaching. In other words most everyone teaches. I admit that does not mean everyone is an effective teacher. But I have often seen individuals classify themselves as unable to teach when I have observed in their every day lives many traits indicating if the wanted to they could be good at it.

2. Two characteristics I would add as signs of high potential to be a good teacher. A) a continuing desire to learn new things (and not just about what you teach). B) always evaluating what worked and what doesn't, what is effective and what is not effective every time you engage in teaching and then adjusting accordingly. If you do this you can be effective.

3. Do not confuse putting on a show with teaching. Teaching occurs when individuals interact. Lecturing to 100 is a show, potentially educational but not real teaching as it lacks any real individual interactions. This is one of the reasons class size becomes a significant factor in education.

4. I expect metrics are going to be very difficult to develop for potential teachers and existing teachers. Two reasons. First we really do not understand the learning process well enough to know what to look for. Neuroscience is just dipping into this. The other issue is that teaching is partly context specific. What is the student population, the teaching environment, the parental involvement among other issues. The ability to standardize evaluations taking into account all of the known and unknown variables which affect teacher and student performance is going to be tough.

I look forward to reading the posts that follow.

A final note has to do with the difference between someone with a Ph.D. and without. An advisor of mine felt the real difference was that a Ph.D. was capable of teaching themselves -self educating themselves to remain an expert. Certainly as a scientist I know that I have moved way beyond the expertise in the single area of my dissertation. But I also realize some individuals with Ph.D.s are not capable of this.

Posted by: ooologist | January 8, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I like what ooologist has to say, particularly # 2 and #4. As a recently-retired 39-year social studies teacher, I can attest to the FACT that good teaching is a lot more like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity than most non-teachers like to admit.

One problem is finding administrators and school board members in whom teachers have enough confidence to accept and work with some version[s] of merit pay. I'm afraid that those administrators and board members are few and far between.

Two changes I think would go far to increase teacher quality:
#1 Require all college education prep to be five-year teacher programs, where the 5th year is a full-year internship with weekly seminars heavy on discussions of the myriad aspects of being a teacher. In addition, new teachers should have a reduced student/course load the first two-three years, gradually increased to a full load. Soooo much happens in those first few years and TIME is needed to process and make changes.
#2 Arrange for each new teacher to team-teach at least one class or part of the day, along with TIME to meet and plan with the co-teacher. The combination of TIME to think and plan, TIME to observe another teacher and TIME to work out problem areas would work wonders.
Notice a theme here - MORE TIME.

Teaching seems deceptively easy in our memories - the good ones just made it look that way and anybody could be better than the bad ones. In reality, teaching is both an art and a science and any 'solution' which does not take that into account will not work.

One last note on content: I told my students the first day of class that to the extent I could encourage them to be 'caring, informed skeptics', I would feel that I had done my job. Content is necessary but time spent arguing over what content is largely wasted - it is what we do with it and how we learn to use information that is needed!

By the way, I really enjoyed reading these comments! All but one or two were very thoughtful and had good ideas.

Posted by: aspnh | January 8, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

As educators, we do not practice our craft on inanimate objects. Living, breathing human beings, no matter their size, have wills of their own, experiences we can never fully understand, and as many different personalities and learning styles as there are students.
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Here's another example of teacher's conceit. Teaching students as human beings is no different than corporations trying to market products to human beings. Only people with no experience in for-profit companies think that a car manufacturer is producing widgets. Car manufacturers are not really producing something as much as they are trying to get consumers to purchase their product.

The same analysis used in every major industry can be used in teaching because ALL businesses work with the human factor- at this point few robots are spending money on toasters.

Posted by: bbcrock | January 8, 2009 9:30 PM | Report abuse

bbcrock - "Here's another example of teacher's conceit. Teaching students as human beings is no different than corporations trying to market products to human beings. Only people with no experience in for-profit companies think that a car manufacturer is producing widgets."

Ahh, I was wondering when the "real world for-profit" argument would rear its ugly head. It always does and the conceit from "for profit" career people is extremely annoying too. I've done both and there is a reason education can never be a "for-profit" industry.


I worked in the private sector for over 6 years in environmental consulting to the Department of Defense and the EPA before becoming a middle school science teacher. The difference is significant.

I am just as tired at the end of a typical school day as I was running drill rigs for 14+hrs in all kinds of weather or being a HazMat responder.

There is an enormous difference in social/psychological involvement, which is why I changed because I wasn't satisfied working with regulators, engineers and scientists. I used to come home craving social interaction. Now, as a teacher that need is satisfied, occaisionally over satisfied.

There is nothing more crazy and exhilirating than managing the sugar laden mob mentality of middle school students the day after Halloween and on Valentines day. Herding cats is easy.

There aren't any other jobs I can equate to teaching, interacting and managing 170 kids day in and day out, including grading, assessing, constant administrivial meetings, catering to parents needs and concerns and so on.

Except maybe being a stay at home mom/dad with a house full of kids from infancy on up.

I am like a short order breakfast cook, parent, corporate manager, police officer and call center PR representative all in one. It is exciting to say the least.

Car designers do have to consider their customers' wants and needs, but they do it in nice quiet offices with occaisional meetings and sales pitches to the boss.

The "for profit" folks need to realize kids aren't cars or assembly line goods for that matter and that is the main reason why teaching/education can never be a "for-profit industry."

As long as American's continue to hold on to that false "for-profit assembly line' view of teaching/education, we will have regualtory debacles like NCLB.

Posted by: tazmodious | January 9, 2009 5:15 AM | Report abuse

Car designers can also throw out parts that don't work or don't "fit" correctly. They can melt them down and remake them. We, as educators, must take children as they are, and propel them to where they can be. If they don't "fit," we have to help them find a place where they do.

One of the problems with our education system is that "they" want all children to be good at the same things. I can read just about anything, but I certainly can't take a car apart and put it back together, and I'm thankful that I have a mechanic who is really good at it. We need to find children's strengths, and help them to become successful adults using those strengths.

Posted by: beachgal81 | January 9, 2009 4:59 PM | Report abuse

What makes great teachers is congruent ;-) to what makes successful people in any profession: passion for your craft, always working to get better/never satisfied with what you accomplish. All the other qualities: patience, enthusiasm, 'thinking on your feet', etc. are outcomes from these qualities. Having been a soldier responsible for research & development, which means collaborating with private industry, teaching has been clearly more challenging, not only in the planning and reflection but also during 'game time' in the classroom. I can only imagine air combat pilots in a 4 vs. 4 engagement, or Tom Brady-Payton Manning facing a 3rd & 8 with less than two minutes in a game, or battlefield surgeons having a more challenging day-to-day experience than a classroom full of young people of varying skills and personalities. What makes those pilots and qb's great is what makes great teachers; anyone who coined the phrase 'those who can't, teach' have clearly never taught.

Posted by: pdfordiii | January 10, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Thought this might be of interest:

* http://www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf

* http://www.maa.org/devlin/devlin_03_08.html

but probably no one will see it now ...

Posted by: rbtorrance | January 13, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

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